Autumn is just around the corner: I know this in my heart of hearts. My friends, who have lost hope in this endless pandemic, tell me, “It’s heat stress, nothing more.” I persist in my belief the bright yellow leaves scattered among the green canopies and the orange and red tinged foliage are the harbingers of the cool breezes of fall.
When the thermometer kisses 100 F and the heat factors have blown past that number like a NASCAR driver taking a hot lap for the pole position, my body only wants to swill decaf iced tea and stay close to the air conditioning. When I taught art back in Louisiana, my art rooms were in an old wooden shotgun shack. It wasn’t air conditioned because “it’s tradition, so it won’t be air conditioned, no matter how much you ask for it.” Private schools have their “traditions,” some of which aren’t healthy for either the teachers or the students.
Two days into the school year, I fainted from the heat. A visit to the nurse’s station got me glasses of sugary iced tea and cold compresses, plus it was air conditioned. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Someone drove me to my dad’s office in the Medical Arts building across from the hospital. I got the once over and was sent home to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and not go outside. My couch never looked so good to me. Mom and dad even kept my little girl so I could rest.
I learned later I had a brush with death. Passing out with other people there allowed me to be helped. People who are alone in the heat aren’t so fortunate. Heat can kill a person. The hurricane Ida is already taking out the utilities in south Louisiana, which means they might not be back for weeks. The hospitals full of Covid patients hope to have ten days of power and food, but that’s just to get them through until relief supplies can roll in.
I actually repainted this canvas a second time, since I wasn’t thoroughly pleased with it on the first go round. The Airport image above is the first incarnation of this painting. While I don’t mind the colors in the ground, the overall texture of the work didn’t appeal to my senses and the runway with its numeral stuck out like a sore thumb. It was either going into the trash bin of my work, or I’d leave it alone long enough to find the inspiration to cure it.
Painting is a journey in itself, as the white canvas disappears under the brushstrokes of color. We can think of a pristine sand beach in the early morning, and its well marked surface erased by the high tide under the moonlight, only to be marked again when the sun rises. As Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister in the 19th century once said:
“Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”
Sometimes we can better solve a problem by ignoring it, for the the problem will find its own solution. Trying to impose our solution upon it just leads to more death, but not to life. Letting the painting come into being in its own time is a better choice, for it can’t be born before its time. In the spiritual life, kairos time is God’s time, while chronos is human time. When we work on deadlines or punch a clock, we operate on chronological, human time, but if we wait for the inspiration from the divine energy, we’re operating in the God moment, or the propitious moment for decision or action.
Along my life journey, I’ve made some unique handmade preaching stoles. When I decided I no longer had use for them in retirement, I decided to cut them up. This is why some of the pieces are the same rectangular size, such as the gold and silver diamonds pattern with the blue and white diagonal stripe in the upper left corner. Some of the pieces are the backings, and others are deconstructed sections. I incorporated several types of gold: acrylic paint, embroidery thread, and a metallic candy wrapper. I also used multiple textures of lace and fabric, some of which I overpainted. All of these come from recycled fabrics. In life, nothing is wasted.
Perhaps this no longer looks like a map of an airport, but more like a place remembered in a dream, when one wants to travel on the whiff of a breeze, which has brought a half remembered smell of a time in the past or a love long lost. Autumn can bring those memories to mind, as well as our hopes for a more beautiful future, for just as a leaf flutters free from its tree, our thoughts can fly away: golden leaves on silver breezes.
Look for the golden leaves, my friends, and let them call to mind those of fond memory and the dreams of journeys yet to come.
If we watch the evening news on television, read a newspaper, or check our Twitter feed, bad news seems to fill the whole of it. Sometimes it gets to be too much, and we turn it all off, for we can’t cope with the next straw; it will break our camel’s back and we won’t be able to go on. Or we may already be broken by all the grief and pain, wounded by the wounds we can’t heal or by those wounded ones who wound others, rather than seek healing. I often thought I spent 50% of my pastoral care on 10% of my congregation, the “broken” ones.
After a while, we can feel like Elijah, who was worn out from doing great things for the LORD, and felt “I alone am left.” God comes to remind him he’s not alone. John Donne was very ill when he wrote this famous meditation. The artists all are from the margins, or made their art during a time of suffering. Yet, what beauty they found in this time. Artists often find their way back into the unity of all things by joining in the creating spirit of God.
Sam Doyle, who was on born and died St. Helena Island, SC (1906-1985), was a self taught Gullah artist, who painted the local stories of his community on anything he could find. He covered the walls of his home, as well as scraps of metal and wood with iconic figures of his people. You can read about this richly talented primitive artist at https://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/artist/sam-doyle
Hilda Wilkinson Brown was born in Washington, DC 1894 and died there in 1981. She was an African American artist and art educator who brought her love of education and creativity to everything she did. Her work was mostly “under the radar,” except for in her own community. Yet she persisted. As a teacher, she’s best remembered for introducing individual creativity as a goal, rather than having students mimic the teacher’s model. Unfortunately, art education classes are still teaching mimicry.
Myrna Báez of Puerto Rico (1931-2018), painted this lush field of plantain trees, a crop long wedded to concepts of Puerto Rican identity and sovereignty. She depicted the crop’s large leaves as they reflect the tropical sun and delighted in her manipulation of paint on unprimed canvas. Báez’s belief in Puerto Rican independence manifests in her impulse to look, depict, and therefore possess the island’s landscape on her own terms. Puerto Rico is currently an unincorporated territory of the United, in which the people are American citizens, but have no vote, unless they move to the mainland.
Georgia O’Keeffe, who was born in Sun Prairie, WI in 1887 and died in Santa Fe, NM in 1986, painted this exquisite “Hibiscus with Plumeria,” (oil on canvas, 1939, Smithsonian Institute). Intrigued by the opportunity to paint tropical flora, O’Keeffe accepted an offer from the Dole Pineapple Company for an all-expenses paid trip to the state of Hawaii to create a painting for the company’s 1939 advertising campaign. It was a perfect escape from the stress of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz’s ongoing affair with Dorothy Norman, the beautiful young wife of an heir to the Sears, Roebuck & Co fortune.
She visited Maui, O’ahu, Hawai’i, and Kaua’i, painting the islands’ dramatic gorges, waterfalls, and tropical flowers, among them Hibiscus with Plumeria. Pink and yellow petals towering against a clear blue sky transform the delicate blossoms into a joyous monumentality. But of the twenty canvases of Hawaii she completed, none showed a pineapple. Only after Dole had one flown to New York did she finally, if reluctantly, paint the desired fruit.
George Bellows was born in Columbus, OH in 1882 and died when his appendix ruptured at the age of 42 in New York City in 1925. He’s best known for his “outsider” subject matter: tenement life, New York street scenes, and boxing subjects. While Bellows was famous for his fight scenes, he recovered his soul in the landscape, such as this Vine Clad Shore on Monhegan Island, Maine.
Frank Wilbert Stokes (born Nashville, TN 1858-died New York City 1955) was the artist member of Robert Edwin Peary’s Greenland Expeditions. He did small works such as this one on site as a record of the journey. Stokes spent eight weeks in the Arctic, the first painter to work on the ice fields, where he had to learn a method as he went, mixing kerosene into his pigments to stop them freezing and sketching outdoors through indistinguishable Arctic days and nights. Based in his studio at Bowdoin Bay, Stokes would spend fourteen months in all working in this extraordinary Arctic environment:
The outside winter temperature was frequently forty degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The lowest temperature experienced was frequently sixty-five degrees below zero. In order to prevent his colours from freezing, [Stokes] mixed them with petrol and poppy oil and kept his colour box in a deerskin bag. Lieutenant Peary’s general orders forbade any member of the party to go more than a quarter of a mile from the main camp. This restriction was relaxed in the case of Mr. Stokes, who frequently went four or five miles in moonlight or starlight, during the polar night, to study effects which he had declared to be indescribable in words, but which are shown by his pictures.
Thomas James Delbridge (born Atlanta, GA 1894-died Long Island, NY 1968) painted this view of Lower Manhattan, an oil on canvas, in 1934, which is now in the Smithsonian Institute. It was part of the Federal Work Projects Administration, which gave support to “starving artists” during the Great Depression. Lower Manhattan’s glorious skyscrapers inspired all New Yorkers, including the city’s artists, through the worst hardships of the Great Depression.
Looking from the dock of a harbor island, Thomas Delbridge showed the dark mouths of Manhattan’s ferry terminals; above them ever taller buildings climb out of red shadows into gold and white sunshine. The crisply outlined forms evoke such famous structures as the Woolworth Building to the left and the Singer Building to the right without placing the buildings precisely or describing specific details. The skyscraper at the center suggests the mighty Empire State Building as it had stood incomplete before its triumphant opening on May 1, 1931. Even as the stock market foundered and thousands were thrown out of work, New Yorkers had gathered in excited throngs to watch their tallest tower rise. The Manhattan skyscrapers in the painting appear to be pushing back dark clouds, creating an oasis of brilliant blue around the island. (1934: A New Deal for Artists exhibition label)
Does art come only from the mind, or does it come from the greater depths of our souls and our hearts or guts? If we reduce art to only its analytical forms and colors, we may rob ourselves of the deeper experiences of the art itself. Likewise, if we put on our false face of “I’m fine,” but in fact we’re falling apart inside, pretty soon our facade will crack open too. Then folks will say, “What happened there?” And perhaps we’ll be too ashamed by then to speak of it, for we lied about our truth too long.
My recent canvas is another cognitive map, for it deals with the changing landscape and our changing climate. It uses paper scraps, lace trims, the button row of an old outfit, and old blue jean seams all glued on the canvas in the proximate place of the main roads of the Dixie Fire out in California. I painted flame colors over the surface, but left some greens for where the fire hadn’t yet spread. Then I took out my handy Bic torch lighter to sear some of the cloth additions. Even acrylic paints, if overheated, will combust, as I soon discovered, for I burned two holes in the painting. They look like the black holes of outer space or the dark night of the soul in our spiritual lives.
When I think of all the needless deaths from the coronavirus since we’ve have the introduction of our current safe and effective vaccines, I feel very sad for every life lost. Even with nearly 4.4 million deaths worldwide and almost 639,000 deaths in the USA alone, I’m not so inured to the loss of my brothers and sisters that I can just shrug it off. I know very few of those Covid has taken from us, but the world is a lesser place without those millions.
And so I leave you with this famous meditation. Donne didn’t know if he was on his deathbed or not when he wrote it. I’m pretty sure I won’t leave behind such immortal words when I think my end is near.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were. as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
~~ John Donne, “Meditation 17,” (1623, transcribed into modern English)
“It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” —Hebrews 2:10-11 NRSV
After the initial burst of summer excitement, my community is not only sweltering in a heat wave, but we’re also smack dab in the midst of the third wave of this Covid-19 pandemic. We might be more than halfway through 2021, but at the rate my home state of Arkansas is pursuing vaccinations, it’ll be years before we reach the holy grail of herd immunity, estimated to be at 80% immunity. Only 37% of our people are fully immunized, with Alabama and Mississippi pulling up the rear nationally with 35% and the states of Louisiana and Wyoming tied with us at 37%.
Like the old gal who’s always worn a certain size shoe or dress, my state now tries to fit an increasing number of Covid patients into a fixed set of ICU beds in our state. My days of a size seven shoe or skirt are a dim memory, as are the days of empty medical facilities.
“We have nowhere to send COVID-19 patients within the State of Arkansas. There is limited bed capacity at trauma centers increasing pressure on the time-sensitive healthcare system,” said Jeff Tabor, program director for the COVIDComm system, which helps match covid-19 patients with hospitals.
Tabor said the one COVID ICU bed which is available is located in southern Arkansas. There are five hospitals, also in southern Arkansas, showing limited COVID bed space. Tabor said some COVID-19 patients are so critical at rural Arkansas hospitals that they cannot be transferred to other hospitals because the patient is too critical and because of bed space.
Recently our state legislature adjourned a special session without amending their misguided law mandating no masks ever in public schools or government agencies. Act 1002, by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, prohibits state and local governments, including public schools, from requiring people to wear masks. Act 1002 became effective on July 28.
The state’s largest school district, joined by a small district already suffering from Covid quarantine attendance problems in its early opening days, filed suit in court to stop this law from going into effect. The judge issued a temporary restraining order. The reasons for this aren’t political, but are found in the Arkansas constitution.
LRSD and MSD are likely to succeed on the merits. Act 1002 violates the Education Article of the Arkansas Constitution, Article 14, § 1, which requires that “the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.” A suitable and efficient system of public education would not require students to risk their health and their lives to get the education promised to them in the Arkansas Constitution, especially when the State is required to “adopt all suitable means” to provide them “the advantages and opportunities of education”.
An affidavit provided by Dr. Glen Fenter, the superintendent of the Marion School District, said that incentives, including gift certificates, groceries, and even big-screen televisions, didn’t entice many local citizens to take the vaccine. Only one out of every three students in the district has acceptable home internet service, making remote learning difficult; even then, “very few” students who did “participate in the virtual education option last year achieved an acceptable level of academic progress,” the affidavit said.
The Marion superintendent said that his district was forced to “quarantine over 500 students and employees” based on CDC and state health department guidance after the second week of school. The school year in Marion began July 27, 2021. This rural system has only 3,325 students enrolled for the 2021-22 school year. Their math proficiency score averages 22% and reading averages 31%, compared to the statewide averages of 47% and 45%.
The broader lawsuit argues that the Act violates an education clause of the state constitution, the equal protection clause of the state constitution, and that certain federal laws preempt the state from enforcing the Act. It also argues that the Act violates separation of powers principles, conflicts with a subsequent state law, and violates the premise of Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Mass., the 1905 U.S. Supreme court case during the smallpox scourge, which allowed mandatory vaccination policies — and penalties for those who refused to comply — to stand.
On another front, the mayor of Little Rock, Frank Scott, Jr., said the capitol city’s covid-19 task force had recommended to him that “masks be worn again in public spaces for which the city is responsible.” He strongly exhorted businesses to follow suit. Scott made note of the many children who visit city parks and community centers and who will be returning to school later this month, adding that “right now, they don’t have the ability to mask up.”
In the middle of all this stress, I ponder these questions: “What inspires a work of art? In our search for beauty in this world, do we have to forget our pain and become as the lotus eaters of the ancient myths?”
Worn out from the years of the Trojan war fought in a foreign land and tired from an unending journey full of trials and tribulations on the way home, Odysseus found his men succumbing to the hypnotic lure of the magic flower. When eaten, it caused people to forget both their troubles and also their future plans. In the words of the hippies of yore, they were content to “get high and get by.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Lotus Eaters, inspired Robert S. Duncanson, an African American landscape painter, prior to the Civil War:
Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea.
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labour be?
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.
Odysseus had to bodily carry his men back to the ship and tie them to their seats to keep them rowing on a straight course for home. Today we’re treated to videos of airline passengers taped to their seats because of their unruly behaviors. Rage flying has taken the place of rage driving. Neither the roads, the post offices, nor the skies are friendly anymore. “Going postal” has almost lost its meaning when no workplace is safe these days.
In the midst of the record deaths of despair, come now the increasing deaths of our most precious inheritance—our children. The number of children contracting Covid-19 has increased fivefold since the end of June, with a “substantial” 84% jump in the last week alone, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. This number comes as numerous states report upticks in child hospitalizations amid the ongoing delta surge. In Arkansas, we’ve had three children die from Covid.
Some would say this is an “acceptable loss or trade off to allow others to have freedom.” I find this line of reasoning heartless at best and cruel in reality. I wonder what these folks would say if their child had lost their life instead. It seems not too long ago some of these same persons were advocating for the elderly to accept a shortened lifespan, since their productive lifetimes were expended. They seem to value people only for their economic ability, rather than for their humanness or for their lived experience. Allowing the “weak” to die in this part of the pandemic also devalues those who aren’t yet ready to produce economic gain for the big machine. (Yet, they fail to recognize the loss of future gain of these young “production units.”)
I would rage blog at the inhumanity of our legislators, who couldn’t find an giant acorn in the midst of an empty football field, even if they had the scales removed from their eyes, but then there’s always the hope they might learn the lesson of Job, for whom suffering brought new understanding of God. Then they’d call themselves back into session and amend their own misbegotten law so it’s flexible enough to meet our current, extreme circumstances. Who knows, they might even rescind this unconscionable law, for persons who truly have the capacity to lead with courage also have the ability to change their minds. Some say it’ll never happen, but I’ve always been afflicted with incurable optimism.
In the meantime, I paint and pray. Even this dire event can inspire a work of art. One of our local hospitals has already canceled elective surgeries in order to concentrate on Covid care. The other hospital has very limited intensive care unit availability. Right now, no one in our tourist town needs to get sick and we certainly don’t need a mass casualty incident. Of course, I could live in a rural county and my nearest medical facility with a trauma unit could be hours away. I remember my early years of ministry when I reminded people, “If I’m ever unconscious, please just have them stabilize me and send me off to the big hospital in Little Rock or Memphis.”
Today I blog about another painting based on a Google map of my adopted city, so it’s another “cognitive map.” I used scraps of an old preaching stole. I made the stole from odd pieces of fabric, plus an old pair of overalls, and a garden glove. I deconstructed the stole, since I’m no longer preaching in my retirement years, and added a few worn out face masks, in which I sewed small pleats. I took some of my grandmother’s old crochet and rickrack trim to mark some of the roads, but let the three dimensional shapes mark the other directional lines. My mother made Belgian lace collars for my young daughter’s dresses, so I’d used these for masks.
I too wore these masks until I was tired of them. I was hopeful when those who know more than I do believed the virus had subsided and we were safe to shed our face coverings. One day in early July at Kroger I had an hour long conversation with a young man who was also glad to be shed of the mask, just to see people’s smiles. We talked for a while and I learned he was just a few weeks past a suicide attempt. This pandemic has been hard on him. We talked some more, for I’ve been in the dark place before too.
I don’t need a preaching stole anymore, for preaching isn’t what I do best in this season of my life. God sets people in my path who need an encouraging or healing word. The world, in its beauty or its sadness, inspires me to paint a new vision of the world as it could be, for I don’t think I’ve ever painted what was ever “real.”
People ask, “Why don’t you make a painting that looks like real life?”
I answer, “We have cameras today for this. In any event, how do we know this ordinary world we see today is what God intended? This could be the fallen world, and not the original world of colors and joy, which God originally created.”
Perhaps we need to rethink our cognitive maps or how we view our world. If we consider all persons to be made in the image of God, then caring for them becomes important also. We can’t separate the Spirit of God from the body in which it resides. We also have to recognize God works through extraordinary events as well as through ordinary events. If we are to reject the inspiration and special providence of God in the matter of scientific discovery, then we’re going to go back to living in caves for a long time.
I remember when my daddy came home from his medical office with a small vial and a special double pronged needle. The windows were open, so it wasn’t yet the heat of summer. He stood next to the light, as he always did in his office when he worked, and gave us children the smallpox vaccine.
“Let’s put a little light on the subject, shall we?” I laughed as I proffered my left arm. He washed it with a cotton swab and alcohol, in his usual calm way. I went first because I was the oldest. Also, I was a role model for my brothers, but I was used to this because of my birth order. I knew to trust my daddy and to show my brothers the way forward. A few tiny pin pricks later, a bandaid, and I was good to go. My brothers followed suit, and we were all told, “Hands off.” We were restricted from playing with our friends because of our parents’ fear we’d end up with a limp or in an iron lung. Polio was eradicated in the USA in 1979, but it still occurs in war torn and poverty areas worldwide.
Finally, while some will write off as heartless idiots the ones using the tired canard of freedom of choice (the ones who fail to protect our vulnerable children), I remind them we require measles, mumps and rubella vaccines to enter schools because medical professionals deem it important for the children’s health and welfare. Of course this same group throws back to us the name “liberal whackdoodles” in return. Maybe we’d all be better off if we thought less of our own egos and territory, and cared more about the welfare of our future generations.
We could then fulfill the promise of God in Isaiah 57:19—
“Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the LORD;
and I will heal them.”
God is full of grace and love, given to offering gifts of healing to those who are both close to us—our neighbors—and those who are far from us—the strangers. If only we humans could love one another as God loves us all.
Changing the way we see our world, one map at a time, brings
Does God, who knows all things, also have a memory, or can God choose to forget?
I often wonder about such ideas, for when we ordinary folk experience horrific traumas, we often say, “This is going to be with me for the rest of my life. I’ll never get over it.” In some cases this may be true, especially if the person doesn’t seek long term counseling and faith support to deal with the soul damaging harm. With assistance, one can heal from the pain, even while remembering the injury, just as a broken bone can be mended over time.
Those who’ve been wounded and healed can go on to help others heal from their pain and brokenness. The memories of the wound remain, just like a scar on the skin, but they don’t interfere with living a positive and productive life. For those whom Henri Nouwen called “wounded healers,” and who find meaning in their suffering, their lives are a model for others to emulate, for their memories don’t destroy them.
If we look at the nature of God—the one who is, the one who will be, and the one always becoming—we can understand better the discussion between Jesus and the Temple authorities in John 8:56-59–
“Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”
Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
Jesus made the claim to the I AM name and being of God, an act of blasphemy, which the devout Jews found outrageous, since it made him equal to God. Their memories of Moses meeting God in the burning bush are to this day a seminal recollection of their liberation story from their Egyptian captivity:
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” (Exodus 3:13-14)
Can one who always lives in the present have a memory of the past, or envision the future? I met a lady at Sam’s Club in the days before the July 4th weekend. She was standing in the center of the entrance while folks were pushing baskets quickly past on either side of her. I thought she looked like the choose cone at a NASCAR restart. Bewildered and worried, she was looking for someone who wasn’t to be found. I asked her if she needed help, and she was even uncertain about this request. I suggested we walk over to customer service. On the way, I discovered her name and that her people had walked off to shop without waiting for her. She didn’t know their names, but she did know hers.
I thought about my own daddy, who had Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. He progressively lost the memory of our family members: first my younger brothers, then me, and finally my mother became “the lady who came to kiss him every afternoon at 4 o’clock.” However, he could remember every bit of his medical training, even when he slipped and fell. On entry to the ER, he began ordering the medical staff about as if he were in charge. They tried to shush him up, until they realized he was running the accustomed intake drill.
Memories are like this, for we keep some which we find necessary and yet lose some very important ones we’d really like to hold onto. We also keep painful memories longer than happy memories, perhaps as a survival instinct. We won’t touch that hot stove again! This doesn’t bode well for our overall optimism, however, if we end up seeing the world as a fraught and dangerous place. How we imprint the emotions on our memories is still debated, for we tend to assign positive or negative emotions to events of our past. Then these affect our future experiences. This is why some of us fear dogs, while others of us approach them with respect, allowing the animal to sniff us out and accept us before we interact with them. We can change our future reactions to old memories, but this is a work in process.
God never gets old, even though God is eternal. If God is always I AM, or I AM WHAT I AM or I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE, then God is a very present god and as well as a God of the future. If the past is also the present for God, then perhaps the past may be also as the future. In fact, for all we humans know time, as we understand it, may have no meaning for God, and what we think of as past, present, and future, God may experience as the eternal NOW. This may be how we understand Hebrews 13:8— “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Recently I’ve been finding old mementos, souvenirs of my youth. Some are faded newspaper clippings, others are letters from old boyfriends, and then there’s the strange and esoteric memorabilia that somehow survived over half a century in storage along the various stages of my journey. My people are genetically predisposed to collecting. Did I ever mention my grandmother’s ball of tinfoil she kept on the kitchen window sill next to the sweet potato plant she was growing in the old mason jar? I come by this habit through my maternal line.
As I’ve been going through these, I had no difficulty throwing away utility bills from the early 2000’s, but then I found the college freshman beanie from my childhood boyfriend. He lived thirteen houses down the street from me. We had a thing for each other all through junior high and high school. For some reason, he gifted it to me. That motive is lost to the fog of memory now. Perhaps as Isaiah 43:18 says:
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
When I picked up this ancient cap of shame, for that’s exactly what it is, since it marks its wearer out as the low man on the totem pole, I marveled at how small the hat was. I don’t remember my beloved having a pinhead! In fact, I mooned and pined over his handsome and athletic form. Then again, I was young. As I held it in my hands, I felt the need to recreate something new from it. I had a landscape painting which had gone poorly because I was ill. I decided to paint over it, using the hat as the central tree structure, and adding some cut fabric trees to balance it. I also found some printed butterflies I cut out for embellishment. Once I glued those shapes on the canvas, I could repaint the canvas.
As I destroyed the old canvas and remade it into a new creation, the words from the prophet Isaiah (43:25) came to mind:
“I, I am He, who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
God is a forgiving god, but more importantly, God is a forgetting god. How many times do we say, “I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget?” We might as well say, “I’m not forgiving or forgetting, because I’m going to carry this wound or harm or slight FOREVER.” So much for our going onto perfection in love, or learning to love as God loves.
The cornerstone of all forgiveness is self-forgiveness. Too many of us believe the verse from John 3:16 only applies to the world, but not to themselves individually—
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
If we can’t forgive the darkness within us, or the mistakes we’ve made, or allow God to forgive us, how are we to forgive others? In fact, if we tell God our sins are too great for God to forgive, we’ve set ourselves above God’s authority to forgive sins. This is pride, authority, and idolatry all wrapped into one. We’ve made ourselves into a god, rejecting God. The Pharisees of old rejected Jesus for this very reason.
Who was the most forgiving person in all of scripture? Jesus, of course, for he claimed authority to forgive sins just as God did, as when Jesus healed the paralytic whose friends let him down through the roof (Luke 5:20-24). Those who were nearby wondered at his boldness, but he asked, “What’s easier, forgiving sins or saying stand up and walk?” If we’re going to claim the name of Christ, we too are going to be forgiving people. Forgiving is an act that heals not only the other, but also ourselves. If we can’t forgive, we’ll never be able to forget, or transform our painful memory into one which God can use for the healing of others.
In a sense, we make a new map in our minds and hearts of our old landscapes of pain and sorrow. What once were places of despair can become fertile fields, if not gardens of delight. Our wounds become the tender points which open us up to the suffering of others, and allow us to minister to their needs. Our healing is part of God’s steadfast love. As Jeremiah reminds us:
“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (31:34)
When I think of the faithfulness of God, I also believe in the timelessness of God. When Jesus meets his disciples in Galilee to give them the Great Commission in Matthew 28:20, he says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” When this present age ends and God renews the heavens and the earth, how will we experience time in the new creation? Surely, if God is making all things new, we won’t be in this same world anymore and the rules it follows won’t be the same. We aren’t thinking boldly enough or big enough if we limit God to only recreating only the current fallen and broken world we have now.
Maybe if more of us began to think on the world a forgiving and loving God could create, we could begin to remake this present world into the new creation. If we were to make acts of love and forgiveness more prominent in our daily lives, we might restore our neighbor to fellowship and community. We can forgive even those who don’t seek it, for they’re the ones who’re most in need of forgiveness. With a forgiving and loving God’s help, we can do this.
Picasso is often thought to have said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” However, just as we tend to view anything on the internet as true, along comes a meme from Abraham Lincoln reminding us of the exact opposite proposition. As one of my old debate team mentors in high school used to say, “Consider the source. Use a verified source. Use a trusted source. Use a legitimate source. Facts, not opinions, count in the argument.” This is the flag we raised, put a light on it, and saluted every day in speech class. This also limited my library quest, for my search engine of choice in those low technology days was the card catalog at my neighborhood library and rummaging through whatever national news magazines came on subscription there.
As much as I love this quote, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” and resonate with it, it doesn’t sound like Picasso. He’s also purported to be the source of “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.” It’s not too different from “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?” This latter is a famous line paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw’s play Back To Methuselah, and was spoken at Robert F. Kennedy, Jr’s funeral elegy.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter we aren’t original thinkers, but only that we stretch our thinking beyond what we already know. In 1982, futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller estimated that up until 1900, human knowledge doubled approximately every century, but by 1945 it was doubling every 25 years. By 1982, knowledge doubled every 12-13 months. Today, knowledge doubles about every 12 hours! For some people, this is absolutely too much to bear, and for others, it’s a reason to yearn for simpler times. However, I’m not willing to give up the GPS and maps in my vehicle, for I have a tendency to be chronically lost. I do find some interesting backroads along the detours I take in error. I just get lost less often than I once did.
Art and other creative ventures are the means by which we deal with our anxieties of this world, for if we have pain and troubles there, we can either create a world of beauty to balance our struggles or we can let all that pent up energy out so it doesn’t eat us up from the inside out. If we’re making landscapes, we might have butterflies or forest fires, depending on how we process our soul journeys.
Margaret’s landscape has the breeze blowing through the trees and flowers. The clouds are also carried along by these same winds. She was wanting to paint a flittering butterfly, and wondered out loud “How does a butterfly fly?”
I didn’t know exactly, and wasn’t into acting out my inner butterfly, but Apple Music has a wonderful tune by Ludovico Einaudi called “Day 1: Golden Butterflies.”
I found it on my phone and played it for her. Art class calls upon all the senses, just as reading a biblical text does. How can we get into a mood or intention of a writer or an artist if we don’t use every one of the senses the good Lord gifted us with? Art isn’t just for the eyes, but we should appreciate the textures even if we don’t actually touch them.
In our Friday art class, I always show examples of how other artists have approached our theme for the day. I collect them in my Pinterest account. For Spring Trees, the goal is to use the cool side of the palette, with a variety of greens, and add spring colored flowers of white, pink, or yellows. Blues and violets also show up with wisteria and bluebells. As I showed the group about a dozen different artists’ works, I reminded them: “You can’t go wrong! Every one of these artists solved spring trees in a different way. Some painted only the tree, some painted just the reflection in the water, others painted the whole landscape. Some focused on the people more than the trees. If your colors stay cool, if we can tell these shapes are trees, and if you use your own ideas to elaborate on this basic format, you’ll do a great job! We can always improve on the next one.”
People are so worried about pleasing others, or not measuring up to some standard. What standard are we setting for ourselves anyway? If we want to shoot baskets like LeBron James or Stephen Curry, we’d better be prepared to work. Curry shoots around 2,000 shots a week: He takes a minimum of 250 a day, plus another 100 before every game. It’s a counterintuitive fact that a player with the supplest shot in the NBA, whose overarching quality is feel, has the hands and work habits of a woodchopper. Likewise, LeBron works out even on his “off day,” with only Sunday as a day of rest. Check out this workout. This is why he’s called the “King.”
If we were writing poetry, would we fail to start because we couldn’t produce from our heart and hand the words which move us, as do the passionate lines of Shakespeare’s pen? He had to start somewhere, for sure. “While salvation is by faith,” I always tell folks, “proficiency in arts and crafts usually comes from works.” The more we practice, the better we become. Some of excellence results from acquiring good eye hand coordination, or fine motor control, but also we begin to learn what our media can do and what it won’t do. We enter into a friendship and then into a love affair with it. We begin to anticipate where it will go, just as we often can finish our best friend’s sentences for them. Take a break and read Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet out loud for a moment:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimm’d; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web,” Picasso told Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Just as everything is grist for the poet’s mill, so we bring all that we are to our art experiences. If we’re glad, sad, angry, or any other emotion, this gets poured out into our work through the colors we choose, the subject matter, or the way we use the media. This pandemic will be remembered not only for its cruel loss of life, but also for its neurological complications for the post COVID survivors, since a high percentage have mood and anxiety trouble diagnoses for the first time within six months of their infection. This is how we know COVID isn’t just a bad flu.
I omit the state of depression, for if one feels blue, one can work, but true depression takes away the will to work, to get out of bed, get dressed, or have the energy to brush one’s teeth. No one gets out of that state alone. Help and intervention are needed. I’ve been a chronic depressive for over half a century, and “snapping out of it” isn’t possible for people with this health condition. If I have a sunny and positive outlook on life, it’s because I’ve learned to think optimistically and I’m medicated properly. Plus I attend counseling sessions so I can keep a good perspective on life. If life is getting you down now, please seek help from a trusted medical provider or a pastor. Jesus meant it when he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Faith healing also comes from ordinary means.
Our art class gives our group a safe place to stretch their minds, to take self care time, and to try a new skill that won’t kill anyone. It’s not like chainsaw juggling , where if you miss, you get a free ride to the ER or the funeral home. We don’t do that sort of thing. That’s more excitement than I can stand. I used to teach middle school art classes, so I had days, when the moon was full, that I sometimes thought I was juggling chain saws. Juggling plastic spoons is more my style today.
Gail is supervising home schooling during the pandemic. I don’t know how all the other parents and grandparents are doing in this particular time, but I remember the chaos which ensued one spring break as the pink eye ran amuck through the elementary school at which I taught. The headmaster gave everyone an extra week for spring break, an act which caused my students’ parents to call me in a panic, “What am I going to DO with my child for a WHOLE WEEK?!”
I laughed and said, “Keep them away from children who have pink eye.” I suppose I didn’t commiserate with them, as they thought I should. These people are now grandparents and I hope that one week back then showed them they could manage a whole pandemic today.
Gail’s trips to fuel her caffeine need causes her to visit different coffee shops. The cup sleeves come in different patterns of corrugated cardboard. Of course, this paper product originally came from a tree, so she brought them in to be recycled and repurposed into an art piece about spring trees. Since she worked for the forest service, this is right in line with her love of nature and concern for stewardship of our natural resources. Gail also likes to plan and think her way through a theme.
Mike gets his idea in a big, global whole. Then he seems to boil it down to a manageable size in a few moments, as he mentally discards the least workable parts. In a few minutes, he’s ready to paint a scene from memory or from his imagination. He applies lessons learned from other classes. For instance, painting in the background first is easier than trying to paint up to foreground details. This painting began with the stream, the green trees, the white trees, and then the popping pink trees for an accent.
I was painting trees with wisteria vines from a photograph I took near my home. The coffee spot at the Airport and MLK Freeway had moved, so when I turned in that driveway, I came to the notice of one of Hot Springs Finest. As he rolled down his window, I turned around and smiled.
“Hello, I’m just taking photographs of the wisteria in the trees.”
“I saw your car and thought you might be in trouble.”
“Not this time, but thanks for checking on me. I often stop to take pictures of our beautiful city.”
While we were talking, his radio went off and he had to go help someone else. Life interrupts our time together, and we don’t know how much time we have on this side of heaven. Many of the things we fight over will be meaningless in the great arc of history. When we meet each other on the other side, we won’t care about these things, for our whole attention will be God and the Lamb who sits upon the throne. If on this side of heaven, we learn to love more and forgive better, we’ll all be going on to perfection, whether we are in life or art.
The point of view determines the perspective of a work of art. One’s point of view, or preconceived bias, can determine how one sees the world and the decisions they make about the information that comes to them. If we think the world is a scary place, resources are few and won’t be enough for everyone, then, we’ll operate from fear and hoarding. If we believe God’s promises are faithful and God will indeed provide for our needs, then we’ll live in trust and hope, even as we order our lives to want less and enjoy simpler pleasures.
I always find it strange how the people in the Bible who have the greatest riches also have the most difficulty following Jesus. Matthew in 16:24-26 speaks to this topic in the section on “The Cross and Self-Denial:”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Of course, even in the 1st century AD, people wanted to have material possessions, a good income, and wealth stored up for the future. When Jesus said, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me,” (Matthew 10:38), he invited his followers to enter a despicable journey.
The Via Dolorosa isn’t named the Way of Grief for nothing. People walked it, bearing a heavy cross beam, on the way to an undignified death, a punishment reserved for criminals.
Yet Jesus transformed this ancient punishment into a means of redemption. He took a symbol of death and made it into a hope for new life. Because of this , the author of Hebrews 12:2 could write, “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Now we can live the Easter promise written in Ephesians 2:12-18:
“Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
So we who live on this side of the resurrection have a joy to celebrate every day. For us the cross is a sign of victory over sin and death, and the evidence of new life and love God has for God’s world and God’s peoples. As we read in Colossians 1:19-20—
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
I covered up an old painting I didn’t care about, one of those “unsold inventory pieces,” which inhabit every artist’s storage areas. In the old days, artists would burn their least good works in the winter to stay warm. While we might want to see these works, artists burned them for a reason. They made better fires than art. We artists know art and we know what we like: excellence. If a work doesn’t meet our standards, we can destroy it and move on. Texans have been burning their furniture in the recent winter snowstorm, when their statewide power grid failed. They can always get new tables and chairs, but no one wants to lose fingers or toes.
I used to think my art was a precious thing, as if it were alive. Now I’m more discerning, for a work needs to hold together and still speak to me for a long time for it to be a “quality piece.” Since I’m still pushing the boundaries of an idea, sometimes my work falls short of my goals. Yet if I ever get to the point at which I’m just repeating techniques and forms, I won’t be enjoying myself. I’ll move on to something else, I’ll guarantee you for sure! I was born on a Thursday, and like all such children, I have far to go. I will most likely never stop searching for a better way to express my creative journey or my experiences in this world.
I’ve often wondered about the artists who find one style and work it out infinitely, as compared to those who develop and change over the years. I love the landscape, and have given priority to God’s creation in my own creative endeavors. I feel closest to God in nature and identity with God’s creative energies when I’m making my art. Making art becomes a spiritual experience for me, since it brings me into union with God. I’ve often wondered if the artists who refine only one style ever end up losing their sense of creative joy. While a gallery might find it easier to sell our products if they look like our previous work, artists have to decide if they paint for public approval and sales or for continuous, creative purposes.
This decision is easier for those who have other means of financial support, but for the most part this has been the lot of artists over the years. A few well heeled families may support their creative endeavors, but many others are the starving artists of legend. Most of us end up in the latter category, since we don’t work full time at either our art or our day job. We sacrifice for our muse.
So what does the spiritual life have to do with the life of an artist? Most people think artists spend their lives wantonly drinking in cafes until late at night. These are “artist pretenders,” since actual artists are called to the solitude of their workplaces and the silence of the moving spirit in the pushing and pulling of the media in which they work. If they command their materials, they produce one level of work, but if they surrender to the movement of the spirit, they enter into a dialogue with the work which comes to birth through their hands. In a sense, we cannot “make art,” but we “allow art to become a reality in our presence.”
For those who insist on “tackling their work” or “achieving mastery over a medium,” this attitude of surrendering before the canvas or artwork is difficult to understand. As Jason Nesmith, the captain of the fictional Galaxy Quest spaceship said, “Never give-up, never surrender.” This is such a trope of television writing, the movie makers had to poke fun at it. What’s sad is we confuse our spiritual life with the movies. Sometimes the best course is to surrender. When we realize we’re at the end of our ropes, we don’t tie a knot and hold on. We let go and let God. We quit trying to fix it and control it. We offer compassion to the broken, rest to the tired, refreshment to the hungry, and cheer to the downhearted.
So it is with a painting. It starts with an idea, in this case, I wanted to recycle old material into a new purpose. I also wanted to revisit the aerial view of the lake area where I live, but with snow. I cut and sewed one afternoon until I had enough shapes to glue on my square canvas. You can see the tapestry elements as well as the old embroidery, which I think dates from the 1970’s.Then I set it aside to dry overnight.
The next day, I used my acrylic paints to put the first layers on the canvas. I ended up with more warm colors than I intended, but the under layers were also warm reds and golds. I was losing energy and couldn’t feel the painting speaking to me any longer. This is “artist talk” for losing sensitivity to the changing field of colors on the surface. It’s similar to not being able to recognize the look of boredom on a conversation partner’s face while you go on and on with your tale. In the studio, you lose the work and elsewhere, you lose someone’s attention. When my blood sugar drops, I have to be careful, for I lose my receptiveness to the subtle movements of color and form. If I can no longer hear the work speaking to me,I know I need to stop and come back later.
The next day, I crunched about in the snow for about fifteen minutes, but under the fluff is ice, so I didn’t stay out long. My cozy condo is a better choice. I repainted most of the warm colors with cool blues and pinks, and highlighted the leaf shapes in the “forested area.” We have two large condominium projects near the lakeside and a large highway near the right side of the image. The rest of our landscape is snow covered trees. Once those odd warm areas calmed down, then I could hear again the brighter notes of red and gold against the violets and grays. The hard edges where the fabric joins together follows along the roadways for the most part.
After I completed this work, I hung it on the wall and compared it to one I’d done prior to this which has all the boathouses around our lakeshore area. I decided to repaint the water with the colors of the clouds of the sky. Now I’m happier with the painting because the same families of colors float over both the land and the water areas. It’s more unified.
The good news is while I may not perfect my vision during my lifetime, for I’ll always see more I can do and my hand will surely fail to capture what my imagination can conceive, I’ll always have the assurance of God’s love:
“So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.” ~~ 1 John 4:16-19
In 1938, Jung had the opportunity, in the monastery of Bhutia Busty, near Darjeeling, of talking with a Lamaic rimpoche, Lingdam Gomchen by name, about the khilkor or mandala. He told the famous psychologist , “the true mandala is always an inner image, which is gradually built up through (active) imagination, at such times when psychic equilibrium is disturbed or when a thought cannot be found and must be sought for, because it is not contained in holy doctrine.” (Psychology and Alchemy, Princeton University Press, 1993, paragraph 123.)
Today, in 2021, over eighty years later, a lot of folks must have their psychic equilibriums out of kilter. They look for certainty in an uncertain world. They seek a savior in a frail human being. They make war to bring about their peace. Whatever angers and fears stir their soul, they act on them, to the detriment of the common good. They are like unbridled, runaway horses, stampeding to a cliff edge without awareness of the consequences of the fall.
The mandala is a graphical representation of the center or the Self. It is unique to each person and would be different from day to day. Jung believed the circle invited conflicting parts of our nature to appear and allowed for the unification of opposites in order to represent the sum of who we are. He found this sense of wholeness was reflected in the lives of his patients, as he was able to trace the progression of an individual’s psychological recovery by correlating it with the coherence of the mandalas they drew. Jung believed making the mandalas over time would help a person gain insight into their Totality or their Wholeness, or “True Self,” as we say today. Totality or Wholeness is the psychic stage in which the union of the unconscious with the consciousness has been achieved. It is the final aim of Jung’s psychotherapy.
The Self was a term coined by Jung and reflected the Hindu Upanishads and its depiction of the higher personality, or atman. It’s considered to be the central archetype of the collective unconscious and serves as the organizing principle of the individual personality. The most familiar way the Self can make its presence known in Jungian work is through dream imagery, but this isn’t the only way. Another possibility, and one which had a particular fascination for Jung is the mandala.
For Jung, the individual consciousness is only the flower and fruit of a season that grows out of the perennial rhizome under the earth, and it finds itself better attuned to the truth when it takes the existence of the rhizome into account, for the root system is the mother of all.” This imagery begins to unfold in the mandala imagery. We can imagine a half circle below the earth, where the seed is planted just below the ground, and another half circle above the ground, where the flower will blossom, and then recall the Christian symbolism in the parable of the fertile soil in Luke 8:1-15, which states at the end of this section, “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.”
In art class, we worked for several weeks at the beginning of the year on our personal mandalas. Since each of us have unique personalities and come from different experiences, we each create a different design. After all, as the Psalmist says to God in 139:14, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” Gail designed her mandala in the form of a Passion Flower, a wild vine of various colors, with a circular crown in the center. This form suits her background and service in the national parks system. She has an affinity for nature.
Jung knew he needed to maintain a balance between his inner and outer worlds by whatever means, whether it was by painstaking anamnesis (the remembering of things from a supposed past existence), creative activity, and yoga activities or by any other means. He knew his family and patients depended on him, so even though he was in personal crisis, with an unconscious that could have “driven him out of his wits,” he maintained through his obligations of the here and now. Jung was also aware of the possibility of being whirled around by “the winds of the sprit”, since he had observed his colleague, Nietzsche, who “lost ground under his feet because he possessed nothing more than his inner thoughts.” Jung described Nietzsche as being possessed by it, rather than him possessing it, and so succumbed to exaggeration and unreality. To Jung this was horrible state, for he aimed for this life and this world.
Of the things that kept his balance, creative activity, which would manifest in his active fantasies and paintings, allowed Jung to become certain he had to delve into these primordial experiences himself, in order to be able to help his patients. If he had gone through it, he may be able to bring the light of understanding to the existential darkness that his patients experience. He could be a spiritual guide, so to speak. This is why he spent time creating the mandalas from his own experience.
Mike’s mandala was created from his inner imagination. His legal work is with persons who are either in trouble with the legal system or need the legal system to bring justice to their cause. Sometimes this is an all day marathon in the courthouse. Keeping all these people, their situations, and the details of the law organized might require a lot of psychic energy. Mike went with a free form design, a choice that might have been a very relaxing and refreshing change from his daily life.
Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle, but it’s a very special kind of circle. As a magic circle, it encompasses the circumference (perimeter) and the center, but not just ordinary space. The mandala has become a word that is synonymous with sacred space. The very presence of mandalas in the world remind the viewer of the sacred in the universe and in oneself. In some of India’s earliest and most important pre-Buddhist philosophical texts, the mandala already signifies a sacred enclosure and is at times understood to mean a place created for the performance of a particular ritual or practice, or for the use of a great teacher or mystic.
Structurally, the mandala is a combination of a circle and a squared form, usually a variation on a cross. Designs that integrate the circle and a four pointed theme, or one in which the circle is squared represent a mandalic space, or a geometric symbol of life. The four points can symbolize time and space, the equinoxes and solstices, or the four seasonal turning points in the year. In terms of space, it is the four directions. The circle with no beginning and no end is a symbol for the eternal whole which contains time and space. Jung stated that the mandala is the archetype of wholeness, relating it to the Self. He thought a mandala revealed “the center of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy.” Others have stated, a mandala ‘‘expresses the totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between (a person) and the whole of nature.”
Therefore, the mandala is one of the image archetypes that often emerges spontaneously when people are in the healing process, either in artwork, or in dreams. Creating mandalas has been found to help the physical healing process as well when they are used in conjunction with meditation. In dreams, mandalas show up in many ways in imagery that shares its geometry or meaning, such as a flower, a square in a village or town, or a fountain. Jung encountered several common symbols when he or his patients drew and interpreted mandalas. These included circular or egg-shaped formations, flowers or wheels, circles within a square or squares within circles. He frequently saw the number four or its multiples in mandalas, which was often represented by squares, crosses or suns or stars with four or eight rays.
Mandala work is very useful in therapy. Art therapists generally simply draw a circle, or have the client draw a circle, and use that as the start of the mandala. This creates an inner and an outer space. If we remember the principle of balance and repetition when we begin to add the shapes to our mandala, we’ll discover its power to unify and center our own energies. In spiritual traditions throughout the world, mandalas focus and reflect the spiritual content of the psyche for both the creator and the viewer. Jung believed that creating mandalas offered a “safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness,”providing a sacred space into which we can invite the Self. He also noticed that creating mandalas had a calming, focusing effect on his patients’ psychological states.
We also see examples of mandala in all the ancient cultures, even in Christianity in designs with animal images representing apostles (and the zodiac), such as the small Chapel of St. Zeno, off the right aisle of the Basilica of Santa Prassede, which was built as a mausoleum for Paschal’s mother Theodora. It’s the only chapel in Rome entirely lined with mosaics. It is an extraordinary sight, as this chapel has the only 9th century Byzantine mosaics in Rome.
For Christians, the Self is a a complicated and mostly negative notion. We usually use the notion in a negative sense, as in “selfish, thinking of our personal needs, rather than the good of the community.” As Philippians 2:3-4 reminds us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” This doesn’t wipe out our individual needs, however, for we’re also called to “Love our neighbor as our self.” How can we love our neighbors if we can’t honor and love our Self?
This is why we Christian believers can find benefits from introspection and spiritual guidance with the help of a trained person. We shouldn’t take this journey alone, for we need someone with experience who can help us to “test the spirits,” as it were. Above all we should remember the words from Colossians 3:9-11—
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
Our search for the True Self is a quest to be renewed in the image of God and conformed to the nature of Christ. As Paul wrote to the Philippians (3:12-14)
“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
A mandala is easy to draw. All you need is a circle and a straight edge, if you’re into perfection. You can do the work freehand if you like. The mandala doesn’t force you into any forms. You make the mandala from your own gut. It will change from day to day and week to week. This too is part of the mandala experience. You can cut it out of paper, use crayons, pencils, ink, or even make it on your computer. If you want to doodle the design on the side of a page, consider it a sketch from your inner spirit, responding to the Holy Spirit, who is calling out to you.
David Miller, Ph.D.: MANDALA SYMBOLISM IN PSYCHOTHERAPY: THE POTENTIAL UTILITY OF THE LOWENFELD MOSAIC TECHNIQUE FOR ENHANCING THE INDIVIDUATION PROCESS, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2005, Vol. 37, No. 2 http://www.atpweb.org/jtparchive/trps-37-02-164.pdf
The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it. It’s different from an actual maze, which may have multiple paths intricately linked. Etymologically the word is linked to the Minoan labrys or ‘double axe’, which is the symbol of the Minoan mother goddess of Crete. The actual word is Lydian in origin and most likely came to Crete from Anatolia (Asia Minor) through trade. Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in regions as diverse as modern-day Turkey, Ireland, Greece, and India among others.
Labyrinths or mazes may have served to help the ones who walked them to find their spiritual path by purposefully removing them from their common understanding of linear time and direction between two points. As one traveled through the labyrinth, one would become increasingly lost in reference to the world outside and, in doing so, might unexpectedly discover one’s true path in life.
On New Year’s Day, I was reading my Twitter feed and came across this image of a seaside labyrinth. The comment was, “My #oneword for 2021 is downwind. After walking the labyrinth today with turns both against & with strong wind, I realized how limitless 2021 can be with the help of those who push me forward and not the wind pushing against me. This year, I’ll ride the momentum downwind.”
The theme of the labyrinth leading to one’s destiny is intricately linked to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The Minotaur lived at the heart of the labyrinth on the island of Crete, whose king required the people of Athens to send a tribute of fourteen youths annually. Once they entered the Minotaur ‘s labyrinth, they never returned. Theseus defeats the beast and saves his people, but loses his father to suicide because he fails to remember to change the color of his sails on his return trip as a sign of his victory. There’s even more dysfunctional family relationships, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say, the ancient gods were wont to interfere with the lives of arrogant humans who failed to defer to the gods and instead acted as if they were masters of their own destiny.
Greek tragedy deals with the sweeping themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between humanity and the gods. Typically the main protagonist of a tragedy committed some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant she or he had been. After slowly realizing the error, the world crumbles around the hero. The tragic hero must be essentially admirable and good. The fall of a scoundrel or villain evokes applause rather than pity. Audiences cheer when the bad guy goes down. We feel compassion for someone we admire when that character is in a difficult situation. The nobler and more admirable the person is, the greater our anxiety or grief at his or her downfall.
This idea survives to this day in the proverb, “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.” In the 5th C BCE, in the founding work of history known as the Histories of Herodotus, we find the statement: “It is the gods’ custom to bring low all things of surpassing greatness.” An earlier expression, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” is found in the Proverbs (16:18). These date from 700 BCE to the fourth century BCE (1:1-9:18).
In a true tragedy, the hero’s demise must come as a result of some personal error or decision. The tragic or fatal error, or fatal flaw of the protagonist that eventually leads to the final catastrophe is known as hamartia, or missing the mark. It’s a metaphor from archery, and literally refers to a shot that misses the bullseye. There’s no such thing as an innocent victim in a tragedy, nor can a genuinely tragic downfall ever be purely a matter of blind accident or bad luck. The tragic hero must always bear at least some responsibility for his or her own doom. In Greek tragedy, the gods may interfere, but they don’t determine our destiny. Likewise, human events and actors may put detours across our path, but though the gods may intervene on our behalf, we can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a true Greek tragedy.
The labyrinth is a symbol for change, for it’s the place of transformation. In the myth, Theseus must enter a maze no one knows how to navigate, slay a flesh eating monster, and return to the world above. Theseus accomplishes this, but still retains his youthful flaws until he is changed by his father’s death and he’s forced to grow up and assume adult responsibility. His experience in the labyrinth offered him an opportunity to change and grow but, like many people, Theseus resisted until change was forced upon him.
The medieval labyrinth is a unicursal labyrinth, with a single, circuitous but clearly delineated path. It’s an image encompassing both shared and individual experience, for we don’t walk the path alone, but we share it with fellow travelers. The unicursal labyrinth is distinguished from a multicursal labyrinth (or maze) by having only a single (though winding) path to its center. While a maze may have little or no symmetry and may not even have a center, a medieval labyrinth usually has both. The great medieval labyrinth on the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral is one of the most famous unicursal labyrinths.
Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist, saw the similarity between medieval, Christ-centered mandalas in manuscripts and rose windows, the mandalas of his patients, and the mandalas he created. Jung believed his own mandalas “helped him maintain his psychic equilibrium” and believed “everything points toward the center,”so that he found “stability” and “inner peace” even during the war era.
Medieval labyrinths, and all their variations, including the classical design of which the medieval style is an outgrowth, now appear across the United States in settings ranging from churches and parks to hospitals and museums; they may be painted, tiled, paved, woven into a carpet, constructed of canvas, or cut into a lawn. They’re usually designed to be walked on. Over the last quarter century, the medieval labyrinth has entered public consciousness as a “blueprint for transformation” rather than “an oddity,” as it was at one time. I can remember at least one of my fellow clergy asking if “this wasn’t so kind of new age hooey I was getting into.” Moreover, labyrinths aren’t limited to meditative and ritual use; they also appear in secular and recreational settings and are often noteworthy for their ornamental or artistic value.
While each one of us walks the same path, no one has the same experience on the labyrinth. We’re all on the same journey, but we’re traveling on a different part of the path. We entered at a different time, or we came to the labyrinthine journey at a different period of our spiritual journey. Some of us will move slowly, while others will hustle along the way. If we came with troubles and worries, we may have been looking for THE ANSWER. The labyrinth isn’t a one armed bandit. We don’t put our money in, pull the handle, and get a payout. The walking is instead an opportunity for reflection, a time to give our selves to the service of God, and set aside our pride.
I’ve walked on the labyrinth on different occasions and had different experiences, since I’ve been “residing in different inns along my spiritual journey” during the years as I make my rounds about the sun while I live on this planet earth. I’ve been to the holy land twice, and been to Greece and Turkey to walk in the footsteps of Paul to see the churches he planted across the Mediterranean. I spent a summer in Italy during art school, while living in a small town and taking field trips to see the historic sites nearby. I took an interterm during graduate school to visit London and visit all the museums I could devour in that short time, along with some excursions to the seaside. Still, I’ve yet to see Stonehenge, and I’ve not seen Paris.
The question is, do we walk the labyrinth as a tourist going to a destination, expecting to stamp our passports, bring back photos, and buy souvenirs, or do we go expecting to meet Christ along the way? On the tour groups, folks sort themselves fairly soon into subgroups. The ones who want to go quickly to the site, give it a once over, take a few photos, and hit the souvenir shops before they have a coffee or a drink, will find each other and share their daily haul as they relax and wait for the stragglers to roll in. The stragglers come in two groups: the ones who took their time, and the ones who took the wrong turn and got lost. Thankfully, I didn’t get lost as I often do here at home! My notorious ability to take the wrong turn and my poor map reading skills are legend. The virtue of group travel is we leave no one behind.
While each person enters the labyrinth alone, others may also be on the path also. When we meet another, we perform a silent dance of giving way, first one to another, then the other to the one. Two can’t be in the same lane at the same time, but we can “dosie do” to let one another pass on by. This is life in community, where we share the spaces and the journey. When we walk the path of the Labyrinth, we enter a space/time/continuum. This is where up/down, left/right, and forward/backward all exist in one time dimension. Time passes differently inside the Labyrinth, for the twisting path appears to take us first directly toward the center, but just as we approach it, we are forced to follow the path directly away from the center instead. Then we wander around the outer edges of the labyrinth until suddenly, we arrive at the center. If we think we’ll never reach the promised land, we’ll find ourselves suddenly cast upon its shores as a Jonah spewed from the belly of a big fish. What seems like three days of darkness in a labyrinth may only be thirty minutes. Clock time gives way to God time on the journey.
Thus we enter into the timeless paths of all the pilgrims walking before us, those who never made their way to the holy land, but found the holy in the land in which they lived. The labyrinth has a way of uniting all the time of the past, the future, and the now into one dimension. In this way, when we walk the labyrinth, we enter into the kairos time of God, as opposed to the chronos time of humanity. No longer are “on the clock,” but we walk in the appointed and opportune time for us to experience the holy.
If we’re surprised, and emotionally disconcerted as we walk these twisting paths, it’s because we discovered we had no control over how soon we could get to our destination. We can stay in the center and be humbled by this awareness, but often we act like tourists instead. We get our passports stamped after an appropriate rest, and head back home. As heroes who’ve been to the center, we journey back to the outer world as changed people, ready to bring new truths and understanding back to the world. If we are like the Greek heroes of old, however, our tragic flaw will be living for ourselves only and forgetting to do good to all.
The energies of the labyrinth aren’t self-contained to the paths or to those who walk it. It is a holy space, so like the energies of space time, in which space and time are relative, observations depend on the viewer’s speed. If we rush through the labyrinth, we don’t have the same opportunity to meet Christ on the road to Damascus, as Paul did, and have an opportunity to change our lives. We need to drag our feet a bit, as the grieving disciples did on the road to Emmaus, so we might have the privilege of recognizing Christ in the central act of blessing the bread when they invited him to stay with them at the end of the journey.
The hurried life isn’t for the contemplative person, so even those whose lives are given over to getting many things done can benefit from a quiet time now and then. Otherwise, we can become the heroic Theseus who depends upon his own power, rather than giving credit to the powers of the gods, for all his great deeds. This is why his arrogance and pride is his undoing, even though he had a transformative experience in the labyrinth. Not until much later did he process this experience and grow from it.
When I began my painting, I started out with the actual forms, in homage to the many walks I’d participated in over the years. Soon I thought of burying the image, and uncovering parts of it, as if it were an archeological dig in process, but I only buried the outer edges. Then the idea of energies of the innumerable pilgrim walks percolated up into my consciousness and I began to paint the intersecting colored arcs. While I lost the paths, I was painting my emotional experience of the walking. I’ve been on quite a journey this past year, even though I’ve gone nowhere, due to the covid pandemic. Confined to home, I’ve longed to journey elsewhere, but the labyrinth is a journey anyone can take safely without fear of a monster who devours human tributes. I’m looking forward to the new year and new works, and perhaps some actual journeys. God bless everyone. Thanks for reading this.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” might best describe my and Gail’s latest adventure at the Oaklawn art class. Pinterest Fail is another synonym for our latest escapade. If my daddy were to describe the result, he’d say, “Close, but no cigar.” That’s a quintessential American expression, which is little used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The first recorded use of “close, but no cigar” in print was in Sayre and Twist’s publishing of the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley: “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!” I’m very fond of these ancient phrases, which are daily passing from the common parlance, even as new words are invented. These were our first attempts at this craft, so our learning curve resembled the same disastrous, steep ascent of the daily Covid infection chart.
The 1977 movie title “Close Encounters “ was derived from a classification of close encounters with aliens as set forth by the American UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek. Close Encounters of the First Kind refer to the sighting of a UFO. Physical evidence of a UFO are classed as Close Encounters of the Second Kind. Actual contact with an alien is a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Therefore, our air dried cornstarch, salt, and baking soda clay objects, which should have looked neat, crisp, and clean, instead came out more like visitors from another planet, whose embodied boundaries were disintegrating in an inhospitable atmosphere.
Yes, I blame the recipes, which said “warm water,” rather than naming an actual temperature. Just as science projects and recipes for bread need accurate measurements and temperatures for success, so does cornstarch clay. Gail mentioned her clay began to heat up under her hands as she worked it. Mine never did, but I had to add rock salt to my mix because I ran out of table salt. Don’t do this! The salt crystals won’t melt and I had chunks in my finished pieces. The proportions of the recipe I used are equal amounts of each ingredient, so if you have just a limited amount of one, measure it and give the others to the main bowl in the same amount.
Once the dough looks like mashed potatoes, don’t eat it. Instead, turn it out on parchment or waxed paper and knead it a bit. Then use a rolling pin to get the dough about ¼ inch thick. Use cookie cutters to get your shapes. Put them on a clean, flat surface, such as the back of a sheet pan. Take a plastic straw to put a hole in the upper part of the cutout. This works best if the shape is a touch dry, since the damp dough will close up. The hole is for the string hanger. The rolling pin might need flouring with corn starch if it sticks to the clay.
I also took some leaves and twigs from the bushes on the church property to use as embossing. I put these down on the cutouts, gave them a rolling pin once over or twice, maybe three, and made sure not to over flatten the shape. You could also use a decorative rolling pin as the last roll to make an all over pattern if you like that idea. A patterned doily or a scrap of lace would make a good pattern also.
When class was over, we cleaned our mess up with hot water and paper towels. I let the water run in the sink to make sure any small remains were washed far down the pipes. All the big scraps should be thrown in the trash. When I got home, I wasn’t in the mood to let these air dry for days and days. They already looked like they belonged on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, so I put them in the oven at 200F.
Water boils at 212F, so at 200F these shapes would be slowly drying out. I baked them on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes on each side. I did notice a bit of toasting in places, but I planned on painting these, so I don’t think it matters. I did lose the points off a few stars, but in this year of the Pandemic, perhaps some of us may be able to identify with the brokenness and vulnerability of these imperfect objects. We may want everything and everyone to be perfectly normal, but standard operating procedure isn’t on the menu for this year’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. We’re all suffering in one way or another, just like these ornaments.
I didn’t preheat the oven, for the clay objects don’t need to be shocked into a different temperature. We don’t preheat a kiln before we fire clay pottery, but raise the whole to the same temperature at one time. Of course, if you’re making a recipe with flour, yeast, or eggs, and you need your concoction to rise, you do need a preheated oven. Otherwise, just put the food into a cold oven and let your nose tell you when it’s done. Preheating is a waste of energy if you don’t need it for the recipe. These clay pieces will be hot when you remove them from the oven. Let them cool until you can pick them up without dropping them like a hot potato (a metaphor from the 1800’s).
I did take a sharp paring knife to the edges to smooth them out. Yes, I didn’t like the raggedy look. You can’t do this cleanup roughly or with big whacks. This is the fine tuning of your shape. I used to help a porcelain doll maker back in my home town. I would sand the final shape of the doll baby’s faces, hands, and feet for her to paint. She appreciated my work because I would keep the anatomical details correct and give the little faces individual personalities. Portraits in porcelain aren’t that easy, but I wouldn’t rush to finish. If we’re always on to the next task, we might miss the opportunity to meet God in the work we’re doing in the moment.
Right now in this current crisis, most of us are limiting our time out and about. If we go to the grocery store, we find our goods and get out. I do the self check out or scan and go wherever I am so I don’t have to stand in lines. I do miss the interaction and chats I used to have with folks. I decided recently even if I were masked, I would begin to speak to others. So far on each outing, at least one person has shared their feelings of grief or loss, which are a result of this pandemic. Because we are forced to limit our contacts, we’ve also lost our opportunities to share our daily joys and our challenges. If we don’t use our words, we’ll lose them. We need time to share our lives and be a community for one another, since we’re all in this together. These are God moments in which we can be a blessing to others, as well as to receive a blessing from them.
This loss of conversation will be even grimmer if our loved ones pass on during this pandemic, for their memories will cease to be available to the younger generation, and their stories will no longer be shared. As these old ones age, and their frailties become like the imperfect points on my Charlie Brown stars, we realize we won’t have them much longer. Even more so, we’ve come to realize this pandemic spares neither the young nor the full of life, as more and more of our friends are struck by this disease. Any one of us could become a Charlie Brown Christmas star at any moment. I have family members who’ve had it, friends who’ve died from it, and my heart goes out to all who suffer with it, especially those who have lost their incomes because of it.
Those who now deal with the persisting side effects of this disease don’t get near the encouragement or assistance they need in their recovery, since the rest of us are too worn down from self care and from caring for those who’re newly ill. Even the health care workers, first responders, and essential workers who have to keep the rest of us safe, well fed, and secure are struggling under the long term stressors of this pandemic. We have a responsibility to care for them so they can keep going under duress. All these folks need a sign from us that they aren’t forgotten.
Unique stars have always been a herald or sign of unusual events to follow. The gospel of Matthew (2:1-2) records the visit of the magi, astrologers from the east, to King Herod:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
These foreigners recognized the sea change about to happen in the world, for soon earthly kingdoms would recede in importance, and the powerful would lose their sway. If they could see this sign in the sky, we have to wonder why no one in Israel was considering what the star’s arrival signified. Perhaps the learned priests knew, but didn’t want to tell King Herod the bad news:
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD, then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever. (Jeremiah 31:35-36)
Of course, today most of us no longer believe the stars and planets affect our daily lives, nor are we “born under a bad sign,” as the blues players sing. Once we clean up the Thanksgiving meal, many of us will turn our thoughts to the holiday season. I’ll remove the last of the autumnal gourds and bring out a few winter seasonal objects every week until New Year’s. As the seasons change, we note the changes in our world. If the days are growing shorter and darker, we ourselves can still be lights in the world, as Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:14-15):
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked. and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.
Even if we’re Charlie Brown stars, our lights will be a beacon of hope for all the world to see.